An old-growth pond cypress towers above a Madison County swamp that will be protected by a Tall Timbers conservation easement. Photo by Peter Kleinhenz.

Of Swamps and Spiders

Another spider on my neck?! I was five minutes into my hands and knees crawl through a squishy layer of muck, my body hemmed in by an interconnected tangle of shrubs and greenbrier vines, when I could feel yet another set of eight legs crawling down my back. It was early August, I was hot, and the assault of arachnids in the form of spiders and ticks was getting the best of me. Then I saw it.

Looming in front of me, so gargantuan that it created a hole in the screen of vegetation, was the sentinel of this particular patch of swamp. An enormous pond cypress, at least four feet across and 70 feet high, towered above all else. I squirmed my way to the trunk, put my hands on the bark, and appreciated the fact that here was another incredible natural feature of the Aucilla River watershed that would be protected forever thanks to a conservation-minded landowner with a passion for his land, and the efforts of Tall Timbers.

The slog through the swamp was part of the process to document the habitat conditions, species, and infrastructure on a Madison County, Florida property that is to be conserved via a donated conservation easement. The landowner, who has passionately worked to restore the property by planting longleaf pine, prescribed burning, and protecting his wetlands, recognized that his work could be erased in the future with a simple land sale after he passes. As a result, like several other landowners in the watershed, he generously decided to donate a conservation easement to Tall Timbers.

Little Blue Herons are one of the many wading bird species that find refuge in the conserved wetlands of the Aucilla and St. Marks River watersheds. Photo by Preston Ballard

Conservation easements work well for all parties involved, including the natural resources. A landowner can continue to live on, and even generate income from the land, while the significant natural areas of the property become legally safe from major disturbances in the future. Sometimes, however, a landowner wants to donate a conservation easement, but can’t benefit from the tax incentives or cover the upfront costs. What then?

Tall Timbers staff, in the last few months, have visited several properties with tremendous conservation value, but where a donated conservation easement is not an option. In these instances, the Land Conservancy staff at Tall Timbers has to get creative. To address this potential barrier head-on, Tall Timbers staff wrote and received a $7,066,860 Natural Resources Conservation Service-Regional Conservation Partnership Program (NRCS-RCPP) grant to, among other things, help fund the purchase of conservation easements in the Aucilla and St. Marks River watersheds.

Staff has also been working through other private and government-based funding streams, on a case-by-case basis, to make the permanent conservation of significant natural lands in our area a reality. While it’s a little bit early to divulge much about these projects, you can rest assured that we are working hard to conserve some of the most unique and important conservation lands in the Aucilla and St. Marks watersheds.

Kayakers explore Big Blue Spring, one of the most pristine springs in Florida. Photo by Preston Ballard

The control of invasive plants, such as this air potato, is critical for the health of our local watersheds and the species that inhabit them. Photo by Peter Kleinhenz

Simultaneous with land conservation efforts, Tall Timbers has sought to bring management assistance to the landowners in these watersheds through the NRCS-RCPP grant mentioned above. Individual landowners all the way up to homeowners’ associations have already contacted Tall Timbers regarding invasive plant management, prescribed burning, or other forms of restoration management. Landowners of properties, like the Madison County tract mentioned earlier, can apply for funding assistance to turn their land into even better wildlife habitat, and we encourage them to do just that. Conservation and land management are virtually one and the same in the Southeastern Coastal Plain, so we are placing an equally strong emphasis on both over the next five years.

The Tall Timbers Land Conservancy is working to conserve some of the most unique and wild places in the Aucilla and St. Marks River watersheds. Photo by Preston Ballard

If Tall Timbers is to make lasting and far-reaching impacts in these watersheds, we must also raise awareness among their residents about the importance of watershed conservation. A recent example comes in the form of the new Aucilla River watershed web pages on the Tall Timbers’ website. Brian Wiebler and I worked to get photos and content together, while Dixie Davis in the Tall Timbers Geospatial Lab produced an impressive interactive map. These two items support each other, enabling a visitor to the pages to familiarize themselves with our efforts to conserve the watershed, while giving them the means with which to experience it. I hope you’ll enjoy exploring these pages, and that you’ll enjoy exploring the watershed even more.

You can probably surmise by now that it’s been a busy few months, despite the omnipresent threat of COVID-19. As I sit here now, at home, writing this and thinking about all that we’ve been up to and plan to do, I feel like I’m caught up in a tornado of activities. It’s easy to get stressed, overwhelmed, and even discouraged at times. But a chigger bite is itching on my foot, and I immediately get carried back to where that bite likely came from.

I’m back in the swamp, covered in mud, with my hands on a tree that has grown for centuries, unconcerned about everything that has gone on around it. It has guarded this swamp, even when virtually every tree around it was cut. I look up into the canopy of this ancient sentinel and I know that all this work is so, so worth it.

If you have an interest in learning more about conserving your property within the Aucilla River or St. Marks River watersheds, please contact Peter Kleinhenz or Shane Wellendorf.

This gorgeous depressional wetland will be permanently conserved through a conservation easement donated to Tall Timbers. Photo by Peter Kleinhenz

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